Psychology of Attraction: The Power of Smell

We may like the subtle smell of a designer fragrance on our partner, however, when it comes to attraction and mate assessment, the power of smell may have a deeper role than you think.

Olfaction [the sense of smell] is one of our strongest primitive and most intimate senses – breathing in the smell of potential mates around you. It is widely known that pheromones are partly responsible for attraction, in particular sexual attraction.  Each individual has a unique smell which can be undetectable by the conscious nose, but can be seen as an outward display of individual genes and traits.

In terms of mate assessment, smell therefore becomes vital. Reaching the emotional cortex of the brain quicker than touch or taste, smell allows our brains to quickly assess mate compatibility and in turn, attraction. In an evolutionary psychological perspective, this could be linked to survival and reproduction. Smell helps our brains assess an individual’s gene pool, fertility, illness etc. - including judging how someone handles stressful situations and even traits they may pass on to subsequent children. These aspects are subconsciously assessed before we even come into physical contact with the individual. We can then further assess suitability through the first kiss (see our blog:, which is an additional aspect of mate assessment.

Are there differences between men and women?

Research by McClintock (2005)[1] found that women are particularly apt when it comes to the power of smell. Women can detect minute gene differences in the male’s odor and demonstrate a preference for particular males who share compatible genetics.

Men however, are not so attuned to detecting genetic similarities based on olfaction, despite men and women both receiving and processing smells in the same way from a neuropsychological standpoint. This could be due to the primitive mating reasons, men want to merely pass on their genes and have an element of quantity over quality, whereas women’s primitive needs are to find a mate with different but compatible genes to her own, allowing for an advantage for subsequent children (Wedekind 1995)[2]. The need and ability to sense these aspects increases during fertile cycles, increasing attraction (and ability to smell out) to the right type of male during the vital ovulation period. Women taking contraceptive pills, whose bodies experience ‘pregnancy hormones’ preventing ovulation, are therefore at a disadvantage – being unable to readily assess the smell of their mate, often resulting in poorer mate selection by seeking smell of males or individuals with the same genetic smell to them – such as relatives, who, in theory, would help rear the baby.

Smell therefore can then be seen as an element of natural selection for women making the best father choice possible for their future offspring as well as selecting the right match emotionally for her. So the next time you decide to splash on another spritz of your fragrance, remember that your date is looking to smell (and meet) the real you.


[1] McClintock, M. K, Bullivant, S., Jacon S., Spencer, N., Ober, Z., Ober C. (2005) Human Body Scents: Conscious Perceptions and Biological Effects. Chem. Senses Vol. 30 1. Pp.135-137.

[2] Wedekind, C., Seebeck T., Bettens, F., Paepke A. J. (1995) Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Vol. 260, No. 1359. pp. 245-249.